Body/ In a relatively short space of time, iFi has carved out a reputation for making products that owe very little else to what anyone else happens to be doing and that deliver sparkling performance with the bonus that they come at extremely sensible prices. Up until now, a one box network streamer has not been part of the range but the Neo Stream makes good this gap.
The basics of the Neo Stream are very much in keeping with what you might expect from a device of this nature. Like almost all iFi devices, it is built around a Texas instruments DAC in a signal path of specially chosen components. It can stream content from a music library in just about every format you can imagine and there is a dedicated control app for this purpose. The Neo Stream also supports AirPlay but not Bluetooth; a slight oddity considering how good iFi is at getting the most out of this medium. There are no digital inputs either- something a least partly explained by the existence of the Neo iDSD DAC which has them in spades and if it is an issue, you can connect the two together to give you a plethora of input choices.
What you do get though is outputs aplenty. The Stream has an RCA out and a balanced connection on a 4.4mm connection. It can also be connected to an external DAC via optical, coaxial, USB and AES and i2S; the latter being rather specialised and fairly unusual at this price point. A volume control on the front panel allows the Stream to work as a preamp too, allowing it to be connected directly to a power amp or active speakers.
Where the iFi is truly different to just about any other streamer on the market is the network connectivity. As you might expect, you can connect the Stream to your network via ethernet or wireless. What you can also do is use an optical LAN input which iFi says reduces the noise and interference on the network signal. Supplied in the box is an ‘Optibox’ that carries out the required conversion and a proprietary optical cable. The fact that its use is strictly optional is a very welcome touch but it’s no less interesting to see iFi keep pushing the technical boundaries.
The main reason for choosing the Stream though isn’t because you think it’s clever. Instead, it’s because this is one of the most outstandingly natural sounding devices you can buy anywhere near this price point. Absolutely integral to iFi’s way of making music is that none of the trick components or clever engineering is explicitly audible. You don’t sit there thinking, “wow, those MuRata capacitors really help here!”, instead you simply note that voices and instruments are detailed and tonally superb without sounding etched or overemphasised.
The Neo Stream combines this naturalness with exceptional bass depth and texture. It manages to consistently deliver a little extra weight and shove over some other well considered digital front ends but does so without the bass coming over as dominant or forced. There’s also a compelling grasp of timing and energy to the way that the Stream makes music. ‘Timing’ is a deeply subjective area but sit and listen to a faster piece of music via the iFi, you'd be cloth-eared if you argued that the result was anything less than extremely engaging.
All of this happens in a soundstage that is spacious and convincingly three dimensional and that grows and shrinks to suit the music being played at the time. As with so many other things that the iFi does, it is often only once you stop listening to the Stream and move to another product that you realise how effectively it balances this ability. Something I’ve also found very welcome is that the performance is extremely forgiving of less than perfectly recorded material. If you have a library full of audiophile recordings, the Stream will respond in kind but it keeps more compressed and aggressive sounding music sounding good too.
The dedicated iFi control app for the Stream is a perfectly respectable example of the breed. It’s stable enough day to day, is easy to use and allows for even fairly large libraries to be easily accessed. What it cannot do though is access streaming services. Instead, iFi has ensured that Spotify Connect and Tidal Connect is fitted, allowing you to use the streaming service apps to send content to the Stream directly. As the Stream is fully MQA compatible, this makes Tidal an excellent bet but Qobuz fans are not so well served as there is no native access (and no Chromecast either). The Stream also works with third party control apps though and is fully Roon compliant too.
The Stream itself is well engineered and it has the unique and potentially useful attribute of being able to work mounted vertically on a supplied ‘foot.’ The styling is rather fussy though and the display, while having good colour and contrast, is almost impossible to read at any distance because it’s extremely small. The last potential sticking point is that the Stream has no remote handset. For many people, in an app controlled world, this will be of no consequence but many rivals are so equipped.
Ultimately, the Stream is not the most user friendly device I have ever tested and it will benefit being used in specific ways; with Tidal Connect being a particular highlight and one that requires little in the way of supporting hardware. If you can use the Stream in a way that works for you though, this is realistically the best sounding network audio player you can buy for anything like this price and it needs to be on anyone’s shortlist.
Robert Fripp Exposure
The iFi manages the unusual feat of not being wrong-footed at any stage by this disparate and challenging album. It consistently manages to do justice to Fripp’s incredible talents throughout the many styles and tempos on offer.
Hermanos Gutiérrez El Bueno y el Malo
This is a pure test of tonal realism with the iFi doing an exceptional job of capturing the essence of the Swiss Ecuadorian brothers and their stunning virtuoso guitar work in a way that draws you into the album.
Leftfield This Is What We Do
The big crunching beats and high tempo recordings of the new Leftfield release are something that the Neo Stream handles effortlessly, sounding big and confident without losing the sense of fun and engagement that material like this needs.
If you plan on using the Neo Stream in a way that gels with the functionality; by Tidal Connect or Roon in particular, very little else anywhere near the price can get close to how it sounds although some of those rivals are rather more flexible and user friendly.